The county plans to ask state lawmakers this session to authorize a two-year pilot project that could involve closing a unit at the West Side jail, which now houses 2,630 inmates, well above its 2,236-bed capacity.
Deputy County Manager Tom Swisstack said he envisions taking hundreds of those inmates — perhaps 650 to 750 — and moving them instead into alternative programs based out of the old, vacant Downtown jail.
A judge would have to make the offenders eligible, and only those with non-violent backgrounds are expected to participate, he said. They could stay overnight at the jail and go to their jobs or treatment programs during the day under supervision by county caseworkers, Swisstack said.
Participants might not even sleep at the jail, he said. They would start out on ankle bracelets to track their location but could be eligible to have them taken off if they meet certain requirements, Swisstack said.
The Downtown jail wouldn’t feature traditional cells. If the offender needs a cell, he said, it’s not the right place for him or her to be kept.
The goal would be to get people with mental health, substance abuse and similar problems the help they need to stay out of trouble, or at least stay out of trouble longer, he said.
“I’m not talking about ‘get out of jail free,’ ” Swisstack told the Journal on Thursday.
Metropolitan Court judges have criticized previous efforts by the jail to reduce crowding, including the county’s community custody program, a type of house arrest under which inmates are monitored with electronic ankle bracelets.
Reached by telephone late Thursday, Chief Metro Judge Judith Nakamura said she hadn’t heard the specifics of the county’s latest proposal.
“I have heard some rumblings through others in the judiciary that the county had plans to launch some new programs, but I am not familiar with what they’re proposing,” Nakamura said. “I look forward to meeting with the county to hear what they’re proposing.”
Nakamura was a vocal critic of the way the Community Custody Program was run. The judge suspended Metro Court’s involvement with the program in 2010 after one of its officials was arrested on bribery charges.
Nakamura has long contended that judges’ primary concern is public safety, not jail overcrowding.
Reducing the West Side jail population so dramatically would be a major change, but Swisstack said similar reforms in the juvenile detention system have worked, making the county a model for others around the country.
He said he would need not only approval from the state Legislature and County Commission, but also support from judges, prosecutors, hospitals and others. County lobbyists will seek about $5 million in state funds to renovate the old jail.
Shutting down a unit at the West Side jail would provide extra staffing to the rest of the facility, Swisstack said. Some corrections officers from the closed unit would move to other pods, reducing the number of inmates each officer must supervise.
Those ratios — now one-to-97 — are far out of line with other big correctional institutions, he said.
Other officers from the closed unit would become case managers at the newly renovated Downtown center, where the county hopes hospitals and nonprofit groups will set up offices.
The status quo isn’t pretty, county officials said. Without reforms, the county faces the prospect of having to build another $30 million wing to the main jail and/or pay $14 million a year to ship inmates to out-of-state detention centers.
The jail system is already mired in a long-running federal lawsuit over its crowded conditions.
These reforms are “the only real answer over a period of time that’s going to pay dividends to elected officials and taxpayers,” Swisstack said.
County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins has voiced her support of the plan.